The Message

Early Shift

On March 22, after years of avoiding questions about when they would launch an early newscast, managers at Channel 31, Denver's Fox affiliate, provided their answer: the debut of Good Morning Colorado, a programming block between 5:30 and 8 a.m.. Suddenly, cable-challenged Denver viewers who'd grown accustomed to getting their first info fix of the day from Today or Good Morning America, which air here at 7 a.m. on a two-hour tape-delay basis, had live, locally produced alternatives courtesy of channels 2 and 31.

So why does Good Morning Colorado seem like more of the same? Because basically, that's what it is.

It's tough to blame the folks at Channel 31, or any of the other Denver stations in the news game, for being conservative. Today, for instance, most local news programs feature segments in which personalities stand beside or in front of giant screens. When Channel 7 introduced the technique to Denver via a mid-'90s revamp dubbed "Real Life, Real News," however, the station was satirized for not having enough money to buy come-hither anchor Natalie Pujo a chair. Granted, the newscast didn't work, but Pujo and Melissa Klinzing, Channel 7's news director, were laughed out of town more quickly than they might have been under other circumstances because they had dared to be different.

Bill Dallman, Channel 31's news director, hasn't made that mistake. He's helped Channel 31 earn a sizable chunk of the local news audience since 2000, when the outlet got into this particular game, by tinkering with the blueprint instead of tearing it up. The 9 p.m. newscast he developed differed from its competition mainly in its rapid pace and graphics designed with channel-surfers in mind. The show featured a friendly, reassuring daddy (veteran Ron Zappolo, who recently inked a new contract), a high-spirited mommy (Libby Weaver), a rakish, ne'er-do-well son (Phil Keating, now a network correspondent), a brash neighbor (self-proclaimed "troubleshooter" Tom Martino) and supporting players straight from an episode of Friends, but more multi-culti (Shaul Turner, Kim Posey, Whei Wong). Ratings-wise, they all lived happily ever after.

There's no telling if the same fate awaits Good Morning Colorado, but the show certainly displays more evidence of Dallman's casting aptitude. With her trendy spectacles and hair ready for tossing, weather deliverer Stacey Donaldson has a naughty-librarian thing going on, but in this context, she still passes for the older sister of spunky reporter Sean Cuellar, who wears chi-chi eyewear of her own. (Dallman apparently believes that plenty of guys would love to make passes at girls who wear glasses.) Reporter Ron Zwerin and news reader Tammy Vigil also exude casual hipness, as does traffic anchor Ken Clark, whose youthful appearance and bald pate give him the look of a high-level fixer at a Vegas casino. Finally, there's shaggy helicopter pilot Rob Marshall, who flies alongside a golden retriever named Dylan. The chopper, known by the comic-book-like handle SkyFOX, is so cramped that Dylan can't do anything other than lie in one spot and eat (sedative-laced?) snacks Marshall feeds him at Donaldson's urging, but that hasn't stopped Fox from rigging up a "Dylan Cam" to catch every bit of the dog's inaction. Betcha Dylan becomes the most popular figure on the show anyhow.

He won't get much competition from co-anchors Justin Farmer and Pamela Davis, who, at least initially, look to be the show's weak links -- a real problem, given that they're the stars. Farmer has the air of a student-council representative the other kids suspect of being a narc, and his attempts at humor often earn awkward responses from Davis. Her frozen smiles imply that she can't believe she's got to hang around with such a dweeb.

Good Morning Colorado's March 30 presentation showcased the lack of chemistry between Farmer and Davis, as well as an even speedier tempo than its nighttime equivalent and an obsessive focus on weather and traffic. During the half-hour beginning at 5:30 a.m., there were three separate, and lengthy, updates from Donaldson and Clark, even though the weather was utterly uneventful and the giant animated traffic map didn't have a single accident or slow-down on it. The commute would worsen as the morning wore on, and Marshall was able to zoom in on several key rough spots once he hit the skies, after 6 a.m. Yet an earthquake at the Mousetrap might not have justified the attention paid to the day's jams and bottlenecks.

Equally repetitive were live reports from Zwerin and Cuellar. Zwerin was at Fort Carson covering the return of soldiers from Iraq, but the personnel had actually arrived an hour before airtime, leaving him with no one to talk to and nothing to do but stand in front of a lone tank, narrating generic celebration footage. Regardless, the show devoted several minutes to the story during each half-hour section. Cuellar's innumerable tributes to the OnStar automotive service, which foiled a car thief the previous day, were even more superfluous; in essence, they were extended commercials. So, too, were a pair of chats with Dr. Dave Liberman, who relentlessly hyped acupuncture, one of his specialties. Being jabbed by a needle would have been a lot more fun.

Other features were lifted from cable news, but they failed to survive the transition. Reading from the front page of morning papers, as Farmer and Davis did, works for CNN's Aaron Brown because he does it at night, not when the Denver Post is already on thousands of driveways or kitchen tables. Later, the shtick of sharing viewer e-mails, perfected by Bill O'Reilly, was trotted out. But during The O'Reilly Factor, the words are on the screen, providing an effective visual, whereas Farmer and Davis read from computer printouts, looking as if their TelePrompTer had broken.

Still, the morning's low point came courtesy of Vigil, who delivered national and international headlines from a separate studio. She deserved worse than solitary confinement after talking about some cats in Arizona that had been drenched in glue. The details suggested animal cruelty to everyone but Vigil, who purred, "Aren't those kittens cute? One of the kittens had his front paw glued to his stomach!"

To their credit, Farmer and Davis looked appropriately dumbfounded by Vigil's comment, and nothing else this appalling was aired. Nothing as memorable, either. Good Morning Colorado may eventually make a mark on Denver television, but it won't turn it upside down. To paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution won't be telecast.

Covered and uncovered: Last April, onetime Denver Deputy Manager of Aviation/Marketing and Public Affairs Amy Bourgeron was featured in "Webb of Influence," an investigative piece by Channel 9's Paula Woodward about allegedly questionable hiring practices employed by former Denver mayor Wellington Webb. To put it mildly, she didn't much enjoy her moment in the spotlight. She was subsequently demoted after the city's Career Service Board ruled that she shouldn't have been allowed to substitute work experience for a college degree in order to meet the requirements for the position -- the crux of Woodward's argument. That left Bourgeron, who asserted that she'd followed the rules in winning the job, feeling like a victim of "drive-by journalism. You don't have to stop and get distracted by any of the facts. You just point and shoot" ("Role Reversal," August 7, 2003).

Although Bourgeron is no happier with Woodward today than she was then, her tune has changed slightly. Now she's upset over what's not being broadcast about her -- news that might put her in a positive light.

In March, Daniel Ferguson oversaw a hearing about whether the Career Service Board had the power to demote Bourgeron, and he concluded that it did. Bourgeron says she expected this decision, but she was pleasantly surprised that Ferguson added a paragraph supporting one of her primary contentions. "I find the evidence presented is not sufficient to support the proposition argued by the Agency that the selection process for the position...was a sham," he wrote. "Appellant was given a waiver of the educational requirement allowing her to compete for the position. Thereafter she followed the required procedures in the application, testing and interview process."

In Bourgeron's view, these sentences vindicated her, and she hoped that the local media in general, and Channel 9 in particular, would tell news consumers that she wasn't guilty of cronyism or manipulation of the system. Thus far, her dream has not come true. The Denver dailies passed on the story, and Channel 9 hasn't showered it with attention, either. Woodward says a Bourgeron item was set to air on March 10, the same day a synopsis about the ruling was posted on www.9news.com, but it was dumped at the last minute because of a "producer's decision." Moreover, the online narrative dealt only with the bottom-line decision and made no mention of any pro-Bourgeron nuances. The piece also lacked any quotes from Bourgeron or her attorney, Mark Mishkin. Woodward says Channel 9 staffers didn't get a response to calls placed with Mishkin; Bourgeron counters that Mishkin's office has no record of having received such a call either then or in later weeks.

On March 15, Mishkin struck back, sending Channel 9 president Roger Ogden a letter demanding a retraction of the original story. Four days later, the station posted another item on the website about Bourgeron, this time quoting from a Mishkin press release stating that she'd been exonerated, but Woodward says the timing was coincidental; she didn't see Mishkin's letter until days after the update went online. Whatever the case, the letter hasn't prompted Channel 9 to reconsider airing a fresh Bourgeron report, and news director Patti Dennis reveals that no retraction, clarification or followup is imminent.

"There was nothing in our original script indicating that Amy did something deliberately," Dennis maintains. "She just got a job, as we saw it, without the proper qualifications. It was really about those in supervisory roles." In addition, Dennis notes that because Bourgeron has a lawsuit pending in federal court over her demotion, "the case hasn't really come to a reasonable conclusion that would make sense for the viewer. I'm not sure what, exactly, we would air other than that she continued not to get her job back." Dennis says she and Ogden sent Mishkin a letter in late March underlining these points, but according to Bourgeron, the correspondence hasn't made its way to him.

For her part, Woodward believes that her online musings represent more than adequate coverage for now, and she doesn't think that "Webb of Influence" was in any way undercut by Ferguson's ruling: "We stand by that story. It was a very good story, a very honest story." Regarding the tone of the website efforts, she says, "We're not dealing with our interpretation of anything or their interpretation of anything, but with what actually happened. And the fact is, she was not reinstated."

Meanwhile, tensions are on the rise relating to Bourgeron's current gig at DIA, where she continues to work in a marketing capacity. She's involved with an internal DIA blog intended to keep the airport's employees apprised of news in the aviation industry -- but after she included her March 15 press release in one package, DIA marketing director Sally Covington put out a statement of her own. In announcing that Bourgeron's conduct was being reviewed, Covington allowed, "We are concerned about the use of City electronic equipment for this purpose, as well as the apparent mischaracterization of the hearing officer's decision, which in fact affirmed the actions taken by the Career Service Board." Citing continuing litigation, Covington declined further comment.

To that, Bourgeron says press releases of all kinds have frequently been circulated to DIA employees, as have many negative articles about her. The absence of more positive ones now frustrates her. "To me, it's sad that after spending 23 years of my career doing media relations, unfounded allegations get more coverage than anything having to do with name-clearing," she says. "When I was accused, it was covered in everything from local media to USA Today, but now that there's been a ruling that says there's no evidence to support these allegations, what kind of coverage has there been? None."

Stage fright: For the cover of its Friday, March 26, Weekend Spotlight section, the Rocky Mountain News juxtaposed a grabby photo of enthralled schoolkids in a theater with the headline "A Hometown Hit: The Walden Family Playhouse has plenty to celebrate on its one-year anniversary." The accompanying story, by theater critic Lisa Bornstein, noted that the theater, part of gazillionaire Phil Anschutz's financial empire, wouldn't release financial figures, but the operation looked to be doing well "judging by all visible signs."

The invisible signs were the problem. The very next day, Bornstein reported that the Playhouse "would close after this season. The Lakewood children's theater will be dismantled, and the eight original shows created there will be turned into touring productions."

This instantaneous switcheroo left the Rocky looking moronic and raised doubts about how forthcoming Walden had been. Chris Broda-Bahm, the Playhouse's director of public affairs, insists that her company acted in good faith. "We didn't find out until Friday," she says, "and we called [the Rocky] as soon as we did." She spins the emphasis on touring as "a phenomenal opportunity" and predicts that some of the productions "may come back through Denver."

The Rocky would seem to have zero incentive to publicize such shows given this debacle, but Joe Rassenfoss, the paper's entertainment editor, seems more philosophical than angry. "We asked all the right questions, and let's face it -- they have very solid financial backing. This Anschutz fellow, as I understand it, is fairly reputable," he deadpans. More seriously, he says, "It's further proof that the longer you stay in this business, the more strange things you see."

Speaking of strangeness, last week's column about speculation surrounding Governor Bill Owens's marital woes stirred up the wackiest rumor to date -- that Owens is having an affair with Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. It may sound crazy, but there's no doubt Helton's a swinger.

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